Sunday, March 8, 2015

George Gershwin Favorites

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I started out to do a review of my favorite recording of George Gershwin's music. Things quickly got out of control as I started outlining and gathering ideas. Then more ideas formulated, then too may ideas! Here are four of my favorite George Gershwin songs with added information about each. The songs are "Rhapsody in Blue", "An American in Paris", "Lullaby for a String Quartet" and "Summertime." Gershwin wrote over 500 songs so this is just a tiny sample from a great American composer.

"Rhapsody in Blue"

Gershwin Plays Gershwin: The Piano Rolls
Image credit: Barnes and Noble

There are three different recordings of "Rhapsody in Blue" that I usually hear on classical music channels. The song is so fresh and modern that it is hard to believe that it was written in 1924. The first recordings that George Gershwin made were player piano rolls. He made over 130 piano rolls for the player piano which was immensely popular at that time. He recorded the complete "Rhapsody in Blue" on a reproducing piano. The reproducing piano recorded not only the notes that being played but also the dynamics with which they are played. According to my research, it's as if the pianist is playing live. The album in the image has music transferred from the piano rolls to the Yamaha Disklavier, which Yamaha calls a modern day player piano. This is the most authentic Gershwin in my opinion, just not my favorite.

Oscar Levant's recording of "Rhapsody in Blue" is astounding. He was a personal friend of George and Ira Gershwin. He appeared in two movies featuring Gershwin music, "Rhapsody in Blue" and "An American in Paris." Like so many geniuses, Levant battled addictions and mental illness. When Levant sat down at the piano, it seems like he poured those battles into his playing. In the movie biography of George Gershwin, "Rhapsody in Blue," Levant was the piano playing double for star Robert Alda. 

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris
Image Credit: Barnes and Noble
My favorite recording of "Rhapsody in Blue" is by Leonard Bernstein and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. In addition to being a renowned conductor, he was also an accomplished pianist. I had purchased an inexpensive version of the song that was recorded by another orchestra. I quickly learned that it was not as good as Bernstein's recording. As you can see in the clips below, Bernstein not only plays the piano but vigorously directs the orchestra during the performance. To paraphrase a quote from his father, Samuel Bernstein, "Who knew that my Lenny would grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?"

Leonard Bernstein "Rhapsody in Blue" 1 of 2

Leonard Bernstein "Rhapsody in Blue" 2 of 2

"An American in Paris"
An American in Paris-1951 - I Got Rhythm            

George Gershwin wrote "An American in Paris" in 1928, long before the movie that was released in 1951. The two are linked inextricably in my mind. I visualize scenes from the movie whenever I hear the song. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra debuted the piece at Carnegie Hall in December,1928. I've seen several references to the music as a "symphonic tone poem," a term created by Franz Liszt. Tone poem simply means music that brings a scene or story to mind. Gershwin said "My purpose here is to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, 
listens to the various street noises, and         absorbs the French atmosphere." He included authentic French taxi horns in the debut for authenticity.

Leonard Bernstein's recording is the one that I listen to although most people are probably more familiar with the movie soundtrack recorded by the MGM Studio Orchestra. Some of the original music is not included and other music is added to the ballet. I'll just call it artistic license and leave it at that. Below are some memorable clips from the movie. Marvelous production details can be found at, especially the use of color during the ballet.

The entire ballet-an astounding dance with musical cuts and additions noted

Leslie Caron doing the most amazing splits in movie history!

Lullaby for String Orchestra

The first time I heard "Lullaby for String Orchestra" I didn't even know it was written by George Gershwin. The song is lush and romantic. It was one of his first compositions, written in 1919 while he was studying harmony. Gershwin used themes from the song in his opera "Blue Monday." I've seen references calling this a jazz opera. The "Lullaby" stands alone, without any other music. Just give it a listen in the video and you'll see what I mean.

"Lullaby for Strings"


"Summertime" was written as an aria for the opera "Porgy and Bess." The music was composed by George Gershwin and the lyrics are by DuBose Heyward. I can just feel the heat and humidity of Charleston, South Carolina where the opera is set. The opera premiered on Broadway in 1935 and was made into a movie in 1959.

"Summertime" is a lullaby sung by the character Clara to her baby. The operatic version is in the video clip to the right. There have been thousands of different cover versions. Billie Holiday sang the perfect vocal jazz version and Miles Davis performs a wonderful instrumental jazz version. Rock goddess Janis Joplin brings her gravelly vocals to a genre other than rock.

I've seen claims that "Summertime" was influenced by the gospel song "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child". In the book "Funny, It Doesn't Sound Jewish." the author Jack Gottlieb notices an influence from the Russian lullaby "Pipi-pipipee." He states that the song "may be viewed as an amalgamation of Jewish and Black based components." The lyricist, DuBose Heyward, was a native of Charleston and Gershwin spent some time in that area while writing the music. This would explain the two very different influences on the song.

Three amazing versions of "Summertime"

From the movie "Porgy and Bess"

Miles Davis with Quincy Jones at Montreaux

The one and only - Janis Joplin

About the Composer

George Gershwin composed many Broadway stage and Hollywood film musicals with his older brother, Ira, as the lyricist. According to the Web site, George wanted to compose "serious" music. Gershwin's serious compositions include "Rhapsody in Blue," "An American in Paris," "Concerto in F," and "Second Rhapsody."

Born Jacob Gershowitz to Russian immigrants in 1898, George Gershwin dropped out of high school. He worked in Tin Pan Alley, the locus of music publishing on West 28th Street in Manhattan. "Swanee" was his first hit, at the age of 21. Between 1920 and 1933, Gershwin wrote seventeen Broadway musicals. He then went to Hollywood and wrote four movie scores.

Gershwin died during surgery for brain cancer (glioblastoma) at the age of just 38. Ira Gershwin organized and notated their works and then donated them to the Library of Congress. According to, the George and Ira Gershwin Collection contains 60,000 items in 136 containers covering 53 linear feet. The Collection contains musical scores, correspondence, scrapbooks, lyric sheets, photographs and many other personal items. Artifacts in the collection include George Gershin's piano Ira’s typing table, typewriter, and fountain pen, and the Congressional Gold Medals struck in honor of the Gershwins. Many of these materials on currently on display in the Gershwin Gallery on the ground floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building.